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Greek under Latin influences

15 August 2014

Nicholas Cranfield enjoys a new study of El Greco's work

Art and the Religious Image in El Greco's Italy
Andrew R. Casper
Penn State University Press £76.95
Church Times Bookshop £69.25 (Use code CT640 )

PROFESSOR Andrew Casper's densely illustrated essay on the "artful icon" is an insightful study of the nine years that the philosophising painter Domenico Theotocopolo spent in Italy (1567-76), on his way from his native Crete to Spain, where he lived and worked in Toledo until his death in 1614.

The 400th-anniversary year has produced a range of books, besides a welcome English translation of the comprehensive catalogue of his known paintings, by Fernando Marías, and a slew of exhibitions, including the great retrospective at the Hospital Santa Cruz in Toledo itself.

This volume is a substantial contribution to understanding how an icon-writer from the Greek Orthodox world came to accommodate himself to the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic society of Italy.

Casper broadly eschews biography, and thereby avoids the thorny question whether El Greco (as he was known later) was baptised Orthodox or Catholic. Maybe he converted when he arrived in Venice, as Nikolaos Panagiotakes suggested in 2009; but the existence of a thriving Greek church there (S. Giorgio dei Greci) and strong mercantile links would not have made this a prerequisite. Artists from Crete worked in the church (built 1539-61), some of whom returned.

We do know that he died with the full rites of the Latin West, but little more, although it may be suggestive that he and his brother Francesco were given the names of the saintly founders of 13th-century mendicant orders. Whereas Francis is one of the few Western saints to be entered into the Orthodox calendar, and can often be found portrayed in later icons, Dominic was never included.

Two remarkable exhibitions (at the Prado, and rather more extensively in Toledo) of his library of books have shown that he read the Decrees of the Council of Trent in a Greek translation, while his signature was always written in Greek. Is this the case of a stranger abroad always trying to put his mark on the society in which he finds himself?

Casper first surveys the world of the Cretan icon-writers whom the young Domenico, born in 1541, rapidly outshone. As part of the extensive Venetian Republic, the island of Crete was not a remote cultural backwater; but the threat posed by the Ottoman incursions after the fall of Rhodes cannot be underestimated.

His first paintings undertaken in Italy are small in format (portable icons and devotional pictures), and the compositions, usually deriving from prints of Western religious paintings, were often repeated, much as with icons. There are three autograph versions of Christ healing the blind man (John 9) and half a dozen of Jesus casting the money-changers out of the Temple.

It is easy to see how such early images as those in the triptychs now in Modena and Ferrara came from the hand of an icon-writer, but less obvious how, within ten years, he could paint on the scale of the retablo of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.

The clue that Casper offers may lie in El Greco's combining the colorito of the Venetian colourists such as Titian (whose student he may have been) and Tintoretto with the disegno so much loved by the likes of Michelangelo and other painters in Rome, where The Greek was living by November 1570. He was still there for the Holy Year of Jubilee in 1575.

From Michelangelo he learned about monumentality and form. Seeing the Medici tombs in Florence had certainly impressed him, as did the pagan grandeur all around him in the streets of the papal city itself.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in south London.



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